For many of us, 2020 has been the most traumatic year of our lives. It’s affected us all across generational lines, political tribes, and economic realities (although predictably disproportionately for those on the bottom). We’re all grieving, we’re hurting, and we’re angry.
Everyday we hear another story or experience one ourselves that deepens our collective wounds. Like relentless waves, we’re hit with COVID-19 outbreaks, Black Lives Matter proclamations, counter protests, growing awareness of police brutality, record wild fires across the country, unprecedented cruelty from the US president, white nationalist vigilantes, congressional enablers, and the rise of a new right-wing mafia that threatens the foundations of free elections while religious supporters justify it all as necessary to defend God somehow (yet said almost the exact opposite four years earlier). 2020 has been a year of trauma and the immediate future doesn’t look any better. Everybody feels the darkness looming in and we’re drowning from sheer exhaustion.
What can we possibly do to get out of this cycle?
When everything is uncertain, we still have two things we can count on: 1). it won’t be easy, and 2). every journey starts with small steps. We can start with validating how we feel, no matter how ugly it is to us. Then maybe, just maybe, we can dare to still hope again, and let that hope guide us through these increasingly dark times. In other words, we let go of the power we don’t have and rediscover the power we always do.
1| Acknowledge the toll it’s taking on you, however small it is or numb you’ve become to it.
How are you doing, really? Now’s the time to be honest. Sometimes you need to scream as out as loud as you can, with the most powerful language you can think of and as much feeling as you can muster. Go ahead. Say it. If it scares you, that’s okay, you’re totally normal. But say it anyway. Because, right now, it’s in you at some level. And it’s festering. It’ll do far more harm to you and the people around you if you keep feelings of helplessness, fear, sadness, anger or resentment – grief – locked in the cellar of your soul.
To access complex and difficult feelings, it can be helpful to design your own grief ritual — a lost practice for collective emotional work. You create a safe place without distractions to freely express your grief, without minimizing or amplifying it to release simply as it is. No judgment, no shame, no fear.
Maybe you return to the place your first heard some tragic news or to the site of an accident. Maybe it’s burning a pile of newspapers and naming specific pains and heartaches within them. You can do it alone. Or do it with family or friends. Let yourself be creative. Anything can be a ritual.
It will feel awkward. Especially at first. But it will also give you a simple and clear understanding of the emotional weight that’s personal to you, but kept tied around your neck. Our feelings are our most visceral obstacles to moving forward.
Adding some kind of ritual to express grief, anger, and sadness allows you to regain control over a portion of the chaos in your life and helps give meaning to it all in times of uncontrollable uncertainty.
2| Limit your consumption of news and/or social media.
In the documentary, The Social Dilemma, early tech founders of social media describe the flaws they missed when developing it – originally it was an invention of connection and freedom but now has become a prison of anxiety. In fighting for our limited attention, social media and 24-hour news has created a perfect storm for bad actors to exploit. Algorithms aren’t just uncannily accurately at predicting our buying behavior, but they can be used now to elicit predictable outcomes by feeding the right breadcrumbs that lead to political apathy, rage, radicalization and violence.
Fake news farms now proliferate the online world. Rage keeps us addicted and engaged. We are now spending between 3-5 hours a day on our phone. As digital devices take over more of our lives, our tribes and communities are becoming more isolated and easily targeted by malicious intent. If you have the option to ignore or reduce the digital pull for your attention, do it. We can learn what’s going on in the world in much smaller bites and in more meaningful ways.
3| Renew connections or make a new friend.
We have more free time when we don’t get sucked into doom scrolling.
Use this time to reach out to someone. Like many others over quarantine, maybe you can rediscover the art of letter writing. Maybe leave an encouraging note or card somewhere for a stranger to find and read. Or send a text when you remember a fond memory with someone. Even a short and simple “I’ve been thinking of you” text can be significant nourishment for our relationships.
Our connections with others are alive and need to be actively cultivated. The Gottman Institutes’ research indicates good relationships need 5 positive interactions for every negative one. Making these kinds of deposits and investments with those you love is how you can build real meaningful relational wealth.
4| Spend more time outside to learn from nature.
“A lot of people say an octopus is like an alien, but the strange thing is the closer you get to them you realize you are very similar,” says Craig Foster in the nature documentary My Octopus Teacher. He goes on to reveal how mysteries of the natural world teach us to be more human. Nature teaches us we are a part of this magnificent world, rather than a visitor on the outside of it all.
It echoes the life and the spiritual formation of Saint Francis of Assisi.
“[T]he modern and postmodern self largely lives in a world of its own construction, and it reacts for or against its own human-made ideas. While calling ourselves intelligent, we’ve lost touch with the natural world and, as a result, lost touch with our own souls…–Richard Rohr
“Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226), spent many days, weeks, and even months walking the roads of Umbria and letting nature teach him. Francis knew and respected creation, calling animals, sun and moon, and even the weather and the elements his brothers and sisters. Through extended time in nature, Francis became intimately connected with non-human living things and came to recognize that the natural world was also imbued with soul.”
Even male initiation rites follow this pattern too, which often take place in nature. They too illustrate you are meant to be a fully mature and intimate and part of this world, not an outsider passing through who doesn’t understand the sacredness of life.
5| Risk more of the comforts in your life to care for what’s good, right, and important.
Under constant fear and threat, it’s easy to become defensive and possessive of what we have. As the world becomes an increasingly scary and uncertain place, there’s a temptation to retreat into safety. Even the best of intentions can be met with hostility. Threats of escalating violence can disillusion us and have us asking what’s the point? But those inclinations, as understandable as they are, will cut us off from love and starve our connections with each other.
If someone tries to punch you, for example, the best thing to do is to move towards it. Counter-intuitive as it is, coming closer lessens the impact and power. Energy spent trying to avoid being hit usually increases the velocity, strength, and pain when it does land. The same courageous principle can be applied to many of the things that strike us with fear.
Even if we loose everything else, there is still one thing that can never be taken away from us: our power and capacity to love.
Love is always available to us to give and share. Love moves past its own comfort. It lets go of trying to control what others do, the circumstances we find ourselves in, or the outcomes of our own actions. Love simply walks courageously towards what is good, right, and true.
The best way for love to win over evil is to be on the offensive. That means to chose love first. To be generous first. To stand with those who are hurting. To put yourself between those you love and anyone or anything which would harm them. Get into “good trouble,” as John Lewis says.
Yes, the world is on fire. And it’s most likely going to get a lot worse before it gets better. But don’t give up now. There is always someone else who needs what you are able to give, no matter how small or how big we think it is. Just don’t tap out. Not yet. The world needs healers now more than ever.
Let the fire from this world burn a light of hope within you.